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November 8, 2022

Mediation Goes to the Movies

By David Hoffman

Mediators often say that our services would be more widely used if people saw mediation on TV or in the movies.

That may be true, but there’s an additional problem.  The few Hollywood scenes in which mediators do appear provide a surprisingly unappealing – and inaccurate – depiction of mediation.  As you will see in the list of movies and TV shows below, these depictions are occasionally entertaining and, every now and then, they capture a small piece of the truth.  But most of the mediators we see on TV and in movies are either inept, self-absorbed, or unethical – a far cry from the actual mediators that I have encountered in my dispute resolution work.

This inaccuracy is not true of every profession we see in popular media.  Some movies and TV shows about doctors are surprisingly realistic.  (Click here for a ranking.)  The same with lawyers, psychotherapists, and the police.  However, in the list below, only one out of 28 movies and TV shows depicting mediation gets it right: the BBC’s “Mr. v. Mrs. Call the Mediator.”  And that show is a documentary, not particularly engaging, and died after three episodes.

Bottom line: I have yet to see a mediation scene in any drama, comedy, or reality TV show that resembles actual mediation.

That said, I use many of the movie and TV clips listed below in mediation trainings, if only to vividly show what mediation isn’t.  In the following list (ranked from best to worst, based on usefulness in trainings), I have attempted to describe why each of the shows or clips might be worth watching, or at least useful for comic relief.  So, enjoy!!  And if you know of additional clips from movies or TV shows in which mediation plays a role, please let me know (dhoffman@blc.law).  Thanks!!

The Best of the Bunch:

  1. “Wedding Crashers” – In the opening three minutes on this screwball comedy, the co-mediators – played hilariously by Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson – are wrapping up the final issues in a divorce. The co-mediators are crude and culturally inappropriate, and yet when I ask my mediation students if Vaughn and Wilson did anything right, they generate a surprisingly long list – while at the same time saying they would never recommend these mediators to anyone they cared about.
  2. “Fairly Legal” – This was the first TV series to depict the career of a lawyer-turned-mediator, engagingly played by Sara Shahi. It ran for three seasons, but with each succeeding episode, the plots got more and more sensationalistic and farther from the truth of what real mediation is like.  The best episode is the pilot (S1, E1), and the best clip is in the pilot’s first six minutes, when Shahi finds herself, on her first day as a mediator, in the middle of a robbery.  With surprising aplomb, Shahi mediates between the robber and the store owner, utilizing classic mediation skills, such as probing for interests and generating options.  The scene is far-fetched, but amusing – and riveting.
  3. “The Office” – In the first few minutes of an episode entitled “Conflict Resolution” (S2, E21), the clueless boss, adeptly played by Steve Carrell, tries to mediate a workplace conflict about an office poster. He tries to elicit the disputants’ interests but cannot resist telling them what to do.
  4. “The Good Wife” – An episode entitled “Get a Room” (S3, E3) depicts a high-stakes medical malpractice mediation that takes place over the course of a weekend in a hotel. The mediator (convincingly played by Isiah Whitlock, Jr.) shuttles back and forth between each side’s hotel suites and appears to be lying to the lawyers about each other’s bargaining positions.  But the lawyers are behaving at least as badly, if not worse.  Meanwhile, the audience is left with an impression of mediation as manipulation by counsel and mediator.
  5. “Marriage Story” – In the opening 10 minutes of this gripping, painful drama about a divorce, the husband and wife (compellingly played by Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver) are just beginning their first mediation session. The overly earnest mediator wants parties to each read aloud an appreciative letter about the other that he assigned them to write as homework.  But when the mediator encounters resistance from the wife (7:30 – 9:30), he pushes her too hard, and she storms off with a memorably vulgar good-bye.
  6. “Life of the Party” – Melissa McCarthy and Maya Rudolph are hilarious, as usual, in this scene from a high-conflict divorce mediation, in which the mediator tries unsuccessfully to manage the parties’ animosity, unruliness, and ribald put-downs. In one of the scene’s best moments, the soon-to-be ex-husband denies being a “weenie,” and the mediator replies, “well, that’s debatable.”
  7. “The Affair” – The brilliant conceit of this award-winning drama series is that we see many of the scenes twice – once through the memory of the husband (played by Dominic West) and once through the memory of the wife (played by Maura Tierney). The mediation scene in the first episode of Season 2 shows the husband’s recollection at 17:50 and the wife’s at 38:40.  In both recollections, the mediator is clumsy, jaded, glib, and entirely ineffectual.
  8. “The Break-Up” – Jason Bateman plays the part of a realtor who tries to mediate the conflict of a couple (winningly played by Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn) that is splitting up. Bateman clearly has a conflict of interest in helping them negotiate what to do with the condo, since he will get a commission if they decide to sell it.
  9. “Disclosure” – The “mediation” in this gripping drama (starring Demi Moore and Michael Douglas) about sexual harassment looks more like a deposition, with a retired judge presiding and a stenographer recording the discussion. In short, it is nothing like real mediation, but the mediation scene (which occurs at the midpoint of the film) is often used by mediation teachers – myself included – as a blatantly erroneous depiction of mediation, and so it has some pedagogical value.
  10. “Mr. v. Mrs. Call the Mediator” – This BBC documentary series about divorce mediation (three episodes) might be the most realistic TV depiction of mediation. It lacks the sensationalistic features of U.S. reality television (see, e.g., “Untying the Knot,” described below) or the twisty plots of a TV drama (see, e.g., “Fairly Legal,” described above), and perhaps that is why the show failed to find a following.

Runners Up:

  1. “Grace and Frankie” – In an episode called “The Bonida Bandidas” (S7, E8), the mediation of an intraoffice dispute by the ex-boyfriend of one of the disputants goes rather badly. The mediator insists that the officemates engage in ridiculous warm-up exercises involving arm-wrestling and hula hoops.  And he clearly has an agenda – to win back his girlfriend.  The mediation scenes are interspersed with other plot lines in the episode; the first scene is at 9:00 – 10:40.
  2. “The War with Grandpa” – In this recently released film, Robert DeNiro plays the grandfather bargaining with one of his grandchildren (a sixth-grader), while an even younger grandchild mediates admonishing the parties to “use your words.” Mildly amusing, but not very illuminating.
  3. “The Mediator” – This grim, enigmatic 15-minute film the best film award at the Carmel International Film Festival in 2015. It depicts a Wild West mediation, in which a cowboy mediates between a young White man and an older Native American, whose only daughter has run off to be with the young man.  The mediator’s sullen shuttle diplomacy seems to be working, until it doesn’t.
  4. “The Mediator” – This short-lived reality TV show on the Fox network featured rapper Ice-T, whose down-to-earth, evaluative style of mediation looks a lot more like arbitration. He’s more user-friendly than Judge Judy but is mainly focused on telling the disputants what they should do.
  5. “Untying the Knot” – This reality-TV depiction of divorce mediation uses fast-pacing and dramatic cut-away filming that feels voyeuristic. All of the cases in this 14-episode series focus on property division and center around the work of a glamorous divorce mediator, Vikki Ziegler, and two stylishly dressed property-appraisal experts.  Ziegler is heavy-handed in her “recommendations” – she basically issues rulings that she then persuades the parties to accept.  Each episode has the off-putting self-promotional flavor of an infomercial and provides a distorted view of mediation.
  6. “Orange is the New Black” – A brief mediation scene in this award-winning series shows one inmate mediating a dispute between two fellow inmates. In this two-minute scene (S4, E6 at 49:00), the mediator doesn’t accomplish much, but by insisting on ground rules, she creates enough of a safe space for the two warring inmates to discover they have a surprising interest in common.
  7. “Divorce” – This HBO drama features Sarah Jessica Parker, and one episode (S1, E4) has two brief mediation scenes. The mediator seems appealingly earnest and competent, but we don’t see enough of her.
  8. “Seinfeld” – In one episode of this acclaimed comedy series (S7, E13), Elaine and Kramer turn to Newman to resolve a dispute over the ownership of a bicycle. But Newman conceives of his role as the arbiter of the dispute and presents a ridiculous Solomonic “ruling.”
  9. “Scandal” – Kerry Washington plays the part of the ultimate fixer in this DC-based political-thriller series. In one episode (“The Other Woman,” S2, E2, at 14:20) Washington mediates the unseemly negotiation of a non-disclosure agreement between the widow of a prominent (but philandering) civil rights leader and the woman with whom he had secretly fathered an out-of-wedlock child.  The story has a touching denouement at the funeral, but it’s not because of anything the mediator did.
  10. “Harry’s Law” – Kathy Bates plays the role of a bad-ass gun-toting lawyer, who, in this episode (S1, E6, “Bangers’ Law,” at 32:20), successfully co-mediates a gang conflict, but only after pulling out a revolver and aiming it at one of the parties.
  11. “Bruno” – Sascha Baron Cohen, in his comic role as a gay Austrian fashion journalist named Bruno, tries his hand at mediating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in this amusing mockumentary. Cohen’s comments and interventions as mediator – among them confusing hummus for Hamas – are absurd and hysterical.
  12. “Saturday Night Live” – In a mock commercial for a product called “Shimmer,” Chevy Chase “mediates” a conflict between Gilda Radner and Dan Ackroyd over whether Shimmer is a floor wax or a dessert topping.
  13. “NCIS” – In the episode titled “Pop Life” (S2, E16), the thoughtful, British-trained chief medical examiner at NCIS is asked to informally mediate a workplace dispute arising from a purloined tuna fish sandwich (1:20 – 3:45). The mediator recognizes the underlying romantic tension between the officemate disputants and agrees to mediate, but it is clear that he simply wants to have fun at their expense.
  14. “Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce” – In a brief mediation scene (S1, E2, “Never Trust Anyone Who Charges by the Hour,” at 28:00 – 29:30), the divorce mediator initially seems knowledgeable and competent. But she quickly loses control of the process in the face of bitter skirmishing over whether the child will be raised Jewish.
  15. “Breaking and Entering” – This romantic crime drama, set in London, stars Jude Law, Robin Wright, and Juliette Binoche and contains a brief (1:45:30 – 1:49) and uninformative victim-offender mediation scene, in which the mediator plays only minor role beyond convening the discussion.
  16. “Better Call Saul” – Bob Odenkirk plays the role of the scheming, hapless lawyer, Saul Goodman, who finds himself in the desert “mediating” the fate of two skateboarders who are being held captive by a gangster (S1, E2). Odenkirk has us on the edge of our seats as he callously tries to negotiate the skateboarders’ “sentence” from execution down to mere leg breaking.
  17. “How I Met Your Mother” – One episode of this comedy series (S9, E8, “The Lighthouse,” at 2:30) contains a very brief mediation scene that is noteworthy for its over-the-top depiction of the mediator as a ridiculous, guitar-strumming advocate for peace, love, and understanding. Utterly cringeworthy.
  18. “The Ref” – This comedy opens (4:00 – 6:30) with a marriage counseling session in which an earnest, but largely ineffectual, therapist tries to mediate the couple’s wreck of a marriage. Then the couple wind up being taken hostage by a cat burglar (played by Dennis Leary) who becomes their unwilling referee.

Honorable Mention:

  1. “This American Life” – Several years ago, this extraordinary weekly radio program featured an eight-minute interview about mediation. In the episode (entitled “Social Engineering”), host Ira Glass interviews Project Ceasefire mediator Tim White, a former gang member who now intervenes in gang violence on the south side of Chicago.  It is one of the best descriptions of mediation I’ve heard in popular media.
  2. “Godfather II” – In a brilliant negotiation scene, Don Corleone (played by Robert DeNiro) serves as an intermediary for his wife’s friend, who is seeking to avoid eviction from her apartment. Don Corleone finds the landlord and, instead of making him an offer he can’t refuse, succeeds with persuasion and cash.  While it’s not exactly mediation, and one could say that Don Corleone is hardly impartial, this clip is nevertheless exceptionally well-made cinema and a realistic negotiation (in which the role of silence plays a dramatic part).
  3. “The Life of Brian” – The ‘haggling’ scene in this Monty Python comedy is a classic – used widely in mediation and negotiation trainings. The setting is a market in Jerusalem in biblical times, and Brian is simply trying to buy a disguise for his wife, but the merchant won’t let him to do it unless Brian is willing to haggle over the price.  Faced with Brian’s resistance (he’s in a big hurry because he’s escaping from Centurion guards), the merchant hilariously takes on the role of negotiation coach/mediator and negotiation counterpart at the same time.
  4. “Public Service Announcement” – Not exactly a movie or a TV show, the American Bar Association produced this PSA, comically depicting adults fighting like children until their very professional looking mediator walks in, and they suddenly regain their composure.

Copyright 2022 – David Hoffman. Permission to reprint is hereby granted so long as distribution is free and this notice appears.

 

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